Apparently Craig Taylor ‘lives in western Canada’, a phrase that’s pretty much the antithesis of New York City, and brings to mind John Updike’s bon mot about ‘the true New Yorker’s secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding’.
I’d say Taylor deserves the keys to the city.
Taylor’s intimate, loving and lyrical oral history of New York doesn’t shy away from the darkness and despair of city life. He’s more interested in the pavement than the penthouse, more concerned with the people who keep the city running than with the super rich. (“In New York, the people are the texture,” an ex-cabbie tells him.) It’s a book that admires the city’s relentless energy while acknowledging that such relentlessness can wear you down. (“You get a lot of grinding,” a dentist says of New Yorkers’ teeth.)
Craig Taylor, a Canadian who lived for many years in Britain, arrived in 2014 to write New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time, an ambitious and entertaining attempt to channel the city’s collective voice. It’s a collection of interviews, oral histories somewhat in the mode of Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian Nobel prize laureate and practitioner of what she calls “documentary literature”... History is absent, too, perhaps deliberately. There’s an extraordinary story about the Rockaways peninsula during Hurricane Sandy, as a father and daughter battle to survive fire and flood, but 9/11 barely registers. Nor does Occupy, or Black Lives Matter. The pandemic creeps in around the edges, but by the time it’s under way, Taylor is moving on. His visa is up, and he’s on to his next project. He does a fine job of telling the New York story, but the place doesn’t get into his blood. He doesn’t dream the dream.
The book is at its best when we hear from the often overlooked: a homeless veteran, a mother grieving for her son who is in Rikers Island jail and a man who recycles cans to scrape by. The last movingly describes the trials of sleeping rough. “Try to stay off the roof because if you get caught on the roof sometimes you might have to fight for your life with a person trying to throw you off.”
New York isn’t an easy place to live for most of us, but after reading this beautifully woven tapestry, you’re forced to recognise that for some it’s relentless.